Shakespeare’s astonishing parade of men and women is unmatched in the rest of literature, and beloved the world over. The 28 characters chosen to be portrayed in the Speak Me A Speech project include some of the famous names but also many that are far less well known. The 35 monologues (the major characters have more than one speech each) selected for performance and filming over the course of the execution of the project similarly include both old favourites and some likely to be new to many, making for a satisfying mix of the familiar and the fresh.
A number of selection criteria were applied: whether a monologue would work on a stand-alone basis, lifted as it is here out of its context of the full-length play, whether it had a clear line-by-line logic or train of thought the character was articulating that an audience could follow, an identifiable succession of story beats, or a thinking-out-loud working through complexity and uncertainty to arrive at a decided course of action, a strong and satisfying ending.
But these were merely the minimum requirements. The focus was on subject matter. And the question was whether the concerns a character is grappling with, cares about so intensely, and expresses so eloquently, would resonate with a modern-day audience.
a collection spanning ages, motivations,
psychologies – a remarkable kaleidoscope
of human experience, emotions and concerns
The result is the astounding spectrum of human concerns covered by the time the project is complete: adolescent love to social justice; murderous resolve to merciful forgiveness; derangement; racist prejudice; the inhumanity of xenophobia, flirtation and silliness; evil and madness; loss of joy in life; old-age wretchedness.
A sampling of monologues being lined up for performance and filming:
In two powerful speeches Shylock in The Merchant of Venice confronts his audience with two aspects of racial prejudice, challenging them first to consider how shortsighted it is to act on one’s prejudices when you may end up in need of the goodwill of the gratuitously alienated, and then to consider the shared humanity that should engender empathy.
With almost unbearable poignancy, Constance in King John articulates her grief at the death of her son: “Grief fills the room up of my absent child, lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, remembers me of all his gracious parts, stuffs out his vacant garments with his form …”
Brutus in Julius Caesar contemplates the interrelations between ambition, power, empathy, character and human behaviour, concluding that attainment of absolute power might change Caesar’s nature – and that the danger inherent in such unchecked power combined with variable human nature poses an unacceptable risk: Caesar must die.
Ophelia in Hamlet suffers in quick succession the cruel and inexplicable rejection of their love by her former lover, and the accidental murder of her father by her lover. Her world falls apart catastrophically; she is driven to terminal despair. In broken bits of language, snatches of songs, we get moving glimpses into a young mind deranged by life’s adversities.
Encountering an angry mob in ancient Rome disgruntled with their place in society and the extent to which the benefits of the state accrue to others above them in the social order, Menenius in Coriolanus attempts to persuade them of their folly by retelling an old fable of the parts of a human body rising up against the belly – but should they fall for this?
Driven to extremes of distress by her own decision, with her husband, to kill for the sake of their ambition, Macbeth’s Lady Macbeth dramatically faces up to everything that might keep her from following through – her femininity, remorse, the recoil from the sight of the wound inflicted by the violence – and irreversibly resolves to commit murder.
The Prince of Denmark in Hamlet eloquently sets out his thoughts on good and bad acting and the many fine judgments to be made in pulling off a successful performance; he tells us how he has, of late, lost all joy in life, in the world, and in people, even though he can see that the world is wonderful and a human being magnificent; and he remembers Yorick.
And then, also speaking a range of South African languages: Viola, Romeo, Juliet, Jailer’s Daughter, Benedick, Henry V, Timon, Porter, Launce, Iago, Macbeth, Lear, Richard, Gertrude, Jaques, Prospero – and the Chorus in Henry V.
Completed to date:
Sir Thomas More: The strangers’ case
Portia: Within the bond of marriage
Falstaff: I will be cheater to them both
Mistress Page: What, have I ’scaped love-letters?
Falstaff: That’s no marvel, he drinks no wine